Still Learning: Despite spectacle, U2 doesn't jolt
"Spectacle" may have been the buzzword of the night, but somehow the production that was U2, the famed four-piece pop-rock act that took the stage at UVA's Scott Stadium Thursday, never quite became spectacular.
"I was kind of in awe– it was so produced," said local musician Mike Parisi. "It was a spectacle, and I came because I was simultaneously repelled and attracted to it."
While critics raved over the audacity of Charlottesville landing the tenth spot on U2's North American leg of the 360º Tour, the local scene itself has struggled to maintain enough energy and stamina just to keep smaller venues open. While heavy-hitters like John Paul Jones Arena and the soon-to-reopen Jefferson will always attract more mainstream artists– thanks in large part to the efforts of moguls Coran Capshaw and Tres Thomas– smaller spaces, which prominently feature niche or under-the-radar bands, have time and time again struggled to keep afloat. Snagging the attention of the most popular band in the world should indicate that Charlottesville is doing something right for its music– but did Charlottesville show up for the greatest pop tour of all time?
In large part– no. As openers Muse took the stage around 7:30pm, the crowd was thin, and large chunks of the stadium were bare. Audience members chatted or walked up and down the stadium steps as Muse played a flawless, yet less than inspiring set. Their music was a perfect imprint of their albums– the sound was crisp, the instrumentation on point, even frontman Matthew Bellamy's vocals were as clear as on records.
But as the band stayed glued to the center of the stage– which, in the middle of The Spider (or The Claw, as its creators prefer), was an oddly static decision, and their painstakingly British haircuts, shiny shirts, and jerky head thrashing were almost too mechanical. The video screen hanging from the stage and composed of 1 million pieces captured every movement with undeniable clarity– then flashed green lines, swirls, texts in foreign languages across the front of the live images, which, instead of being inspiring, merely left one overwhelmed. While some youthful fans surrounding the stage jumped and cheered, most just head-bobbed or stood still, staring. From up in the stands, the energy was flat-lining.
"There was even less energy than in DC," said David Berlin, who has seen U2 52 times in his life, been to five stops on the 360º tour already (including the FedEx Field show), spent $1,150 on Charlottesville's performance, and plans to attend the Rose Bowl and Las Vegas shows. "I guess this is a wine and cheese college."
Then came the moment of truth: how would U2 make its first impression upon Charlottesville?
The answer– by sneaking on through steps practically hidden in the center circle of the stage– did little to rouse the audience from its slump. Bono threw out references to Thomas Jefferson immediately in the first song (although he kept referring to the "campus"– no one must have prepped him that it is "Grounds"), drawing some cheers. But when he attempted to have an audience sing-a-long during "No Line on the Horizon," he was met with near silence.
Of course, the concert was good. Actually, the music was great. For the most part, The Edge rocked on the guitar; the under-appreciated drummer, Larry Mullen, Jr, was fabulous. The sound was exhilarating, and it seemed like a privilege to see Bono, both in his rock star persona and as an activist, pointing out at Charlottesville and bringing nearly 60,000 people to little Scott Stadium (because goodness knows the football team won't do that anytime soon). The entire concert experience– from parking to crowd control to seating– was nearly flawless. Audience members before and after raved about how quickly they were able to get into the stadium and navigate through traffic, while JPJ general manager Larry Wilson had nothing but praise for the evening.
"It all went off without a hitch," he said. "The traffic went extremely well, and there were no standstills, as we were monitoring from the helicopter and VDOT cameras. The band was happy, the promoter was happy, and the fans had a great night."
The performance lived up to all expectations of spectacle. But somehow, U2 just couldn't quite live up to the expectation of being the greatest band of modern time.
Some of the songs fell flat. "Beautiful Day"– one of the band's better-known hits, especially to the generation currently attending UVA– was completely under-whelming. Bono sat for part of it, then walked around slowly, singing in a lackluster tone. For a song that resonates with the setting's dominant generation, it could have used more energy to fire up the crowd. When Bono emphasized the line, "I love this town," there were a few people who realized he was alluding to Charlottesville and cheered faintly. Then it was over.
"I was hoping it would be more intense," said UVA student Jack Bird. "Some people were really into it, but some were really laid back, nonplussed."
A few more songs went by, and Bono urged the crowd to wave their hands, clap, make some sign of life. For a few minutes, a spark went through the audience, only to have attendees slump back into head-bopping as soon as the singer turned his back.
It wasn't all disappointing. There were several songs that really rocked, especially towards the end. While the concert on September 29 at FedEx field was overtly political, according to fan Berlin, Bono seemed to clean it up for Charlottesville– which was a mistake, as the political shout-outs and subsequent heart-wrenching or balls-to-the-wall performances fired up the Washington audience and created a wave of sustainable energy. A video message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the first encore, a dedication of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to the "nonviolent revolution" in Iran, a performance of "Walk On" for jailed Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi all kindled the crowd and transformed the head-bobbing voyeurs into a fiery, active audience.
"They're such a feel-good band– seeing Desmond Tutu on the screen was awesome," audience member Amy Scherer said. "They really know what's going on in the world, and it pulls people in to the greater issues."
But that begs the question: how can U2, four men nearly in their fifties who have been in the spotlight for nearly 30 years, remain relevant? Has their music passed its prime? Have they consigned themselves to being salesmen– for Blackberry, for bipartisanship, for human rights?
"People have a love/hate relationship with this band," said Berlin. "But they have to sell out to corporate sponsors– this last album hasn't sold well, so U2 must recognize that to make money and be viable, they have to have lots of sponsors."
After two encores, two hours, eleven minutes, and seventeen seconds, and "close to a full house," according to Wilson, the spectacle was over. Immediately after the lights lifted and fans began pouring out, crew members started tearing down the stage.
During the middle of the show, Bono paused to introduce the band he has played with for years– but for Charlottesville, he tailored the intros to fit the college-town atmosphere: the Edge was the nerd, Larry Mullen, Jr was the athlete and team captain, Adam was the lady's man, all while Bono still had "a lot to learn." But if the greatest pop-rock tour of all time still has to find time to study, Charlottesville's music aficionados might have quite a bit of cramming to do.